James Hildreth, immunologist and former professor at Tennessee’s Meharry Medical College, started his post as the new dean of the College of Biological Sciences this month. As a prominent AIDS researcher, Hildreth’s work focuses on how HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, penetrates the cell and promotes infection.
Prior to directing the Center for AIDS Health Disparities Research at the historically black college in Tennessee, Hildreth served as a chief of research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). At the NIH, his research team made the discovery that cholesterol is active in HIV’s ability to enter cells, and that eliminating the fatty matter from a cell’s membrane may stop infection.
With this discovery, Hildreth’s team has been able develop topical microbicides, generally known as “chemical condoms,” to block the sexual transmission of the virus.
Hildreth’s academic background includes graduating from Harvard magna cum laude in chemistry, studying at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar for his immunology doctorate and earning his medical degree at Johns Hopkins, where he became a faculty member after graduation.
Hildreth sat down with Aggie science writer Eva Tan to discuss his research and goals at UC Davis.
You hail all the way from the eastern U.S. How are you adjusting to California?
Hildreth: It’s been quite good to be closer to my relatives. Certainly, one can’t help but enjoy the beautiful weather. The people here are very friendly and welcoming. It’s been a really nice transition.
Why UC Davis?
There is such a rich, diverse, and strong group of researchers [here]. One of the things I hope to do is be a bridge-builder, bridge people together so that the research is enhanced and so that the training and education of students can be enhanced.
Well, the way I like to explain is: in the last century, physicists and their research transformed the lives of humans – for energy, communication, weapons, you name it. They solved some really big problems. And I believe that life science research will do the same thing – in terms of food, health, the environment and energy. And that’s only going to happen if life science researchers are cooperating across disciplines with physicists, engineers and others. And I believe that, here, on this campus, one can do that.
Besides research, you seem to be a large advocate of reducing health disparities. Any plans for this in Davis?
My interest in doing medicine in the first place began when I was a little boy of 11 years, when I lost my father – and that was really an access of care issue. Access of care was really determined by poverty and race, and the same two issues are present in disparities today. In a way, my life has come full circle, because I started out being interested in medicine dealing with disparities, and what I am doing now is to using the power of research to try to bring an end to them.
How can undergraduates get involved in your work with HIV research?
Well if they contact me or the lab director, I will tell them a little about what we are doing and we can try to put together a project or idea they can work on. I’ve always enjoyed having [undergraduates] in the lab. I look forward to them, and hopefully we can make a rich and rewarding experience together.
What are you going to miss most from the Tennessee?
I like building things, physically, with my hand. I drive a pick-up truck, and sometimes I get an urge to get a load of lumber and build an extension or modify something in the house. I really enjoy those activities. And of course being here in the green California, it might not be easy. But there will be other joys, I’m sure. Just being here, part of this team, is very exciting.
EVA TAN can be reached at email@example.com.